Emma Lewell-Buck: Time to repay our nuclear test veterans

Fewer than 2,000 of our nuclear test veterans are alive today.
Fewer than 2,000 of our nuclear test veterans are alive today.

It is now accepted common knowledge that nuclear weapons have a negative impact on the human body.

If you were staging an atmospheric nuclear weapons test today (which have since been banned) you would expect service men and women involved to have protection such as being behind a screen, wearing protective suits and eye-wear and making sure they were at a safe distance.

However, years ago when the UK was testing nuclear weapons this was not the case.

Nuclear veterans who served in the British Armed Forces did not receive warnings about the fact that it would affect their health, nor did they receive protective clothing.

Men such as Jack Taylor from South Shields were asked to witness nuclear tests when serving in the armed forces wearing just shorts and T-shirt.

Jack is one of about 22,000 British service personnel who witnessed major nuclear weapons tests in Maralinga on mainland Australia, the Montebello Islands off Western Australia and Christmas Island in the South Pacific between 1952 and 1967.

These tests included ‘Operation Antler’ and ‘Operation Grapple’. The British nuclear testing programme was the largest tri-service operation since the D-Day landings.

As can be expected, these veterans subsequently suffered from wide-ranging health problems. Many have had rare cancers, fertility problems and family birth defects.

These problems may have been passed down the generations. Six decades on, nuclear families are still living with the aftermath of the bomb tests.

Successive Governments have failed to recognise the massive sacrifice these veterans have made.

These men bore witness to the most devastating weapon this country ever produced, yet have laboured ever since under an oppressive cloud of official denial.

Now time is running out for the Government to make amends with our British nuclear veterans. Fewer than 2,000 nuclear veterans are still alive today.

The nuclear veterans still with us are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and many have spent years fighting for compensation for the harm caused to them by the state.

The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France have all compensated their nuclear veterans.

Yet here in the UK, litigation, petitions and pleas have all been side-lined by successive Governments stating that they can’t prove they were irradiated – the science needed to prove the link doesn’t exist – so they have no claim.

For our brave British Nuclear Veterans time is running out.

I recently pledged my support to the British Nuclear Testing Veterans Association’s online petition to award a medal to British personnel involved in any nuclear testing programme.

It is the least we can do to show our appreciation and respect to these courageous veterans who have gone through so much and continue to do so.

It is time this nation repaid the debt of honour it owes to all British nuclear veterans who participated and their families.

The UK is the only nuclear power to deny special recognition and compensation to its bomb test veterans.

Every other nuclear power has recognised its nuclear veterans and Britain must, in all good conscience, do the same before it is too late.